Social Media and the Communications Triangle

A little-known communications model provides useful guidance for authentic sharing online.

Friend lists were ignored by Facebook – and went largely unheard of amongst users – in the drive to encourage public sharing. The developers of Google+ however, realised that whilst some people are comfortable with public sharing (ala Twitter), others demand privacy, only sharing with social circles based on context or familiarity.

Context-based friend lists (such as work and interests) are easy to implement – music, photography, workplaces etc. It can be harder to grasp how familiarity works online, and this is where the Communications Triangle1 is useful:The Communications TriangleThe Communications Triangle describes levels of interaction, from the ‘rituals & clichés’ of meeting-and-greeting, to the profound familiarity of ‘peak rapport’. Even good friends begin conversations by exchanging pleasantries, but they can access higher levels quickly due to mutually developed trust and understanding.

People don’t tend to share ‘ideas and judgements’ or ‘feelings and emotions’ with those they don’t know (or trust). That’s why conversations with casual acquaintances frequently centre on facts and information.

Friend lists can be aligned to the Comms Triangle, with acquaintances seeing content shared across lower levels, and ‘friends’ or ‘family’ seeing more of an individual’s ideas, solutions and judgements, feelings and emotions.

Trust of course is a factor, and so is perceived risk. Good friendships are worth a risk though, so new acquaintances can be fast-tracked to higher levels, whilst other people can step up as we get to know them better.

The Communications Triangle can guide the development of friend lists and circles online, supporting authentic interactions based on familiarity and trust. Perhaps it’s a model that can help you?

1A common adaptation of the source found here:
Barnes, P., & University of Strathclyde. (1997). ‘Theory into practice’: The complete practical theory of outdoor education and personal development. Glasgow: Faculty of Education, University of Strathclyde.

Barnes’ original is not available online but is discussed in this book:
Beard, C., & Wilson, J. P. (2006). Experiential learning: A best practice handbook for educators and trainers. London: Kogan Page.

Finally, a similar adaptation (with an additional ‘Gossip and Grapevine’ level) is here:
Williams, M. R. (2005). Leadership for leaders. London: Thorogood Pub.


Dave, Bill, Bob and John

Dave meets Bill, Bob and John. Bill is a policeman, Bob is a doctor, John is the Judge.

Bill’s world is black and white, offences require a standardised response. Bob considers symptoms (not just the facts), and his responses are tailored to the individual.

Both approaches are right.

Who should worry?

Gremlins in the wild

'At the start (2)' by p2-r2, on Flickr

'At the start (2)' by p2-r2, on Flickr

Chatting with @P0bsta recently we discussed a shudder-inducing facilitation ‘tool’ – the one where delegates position themselves in one of four quadrants (Participant / Passenger / Prisoner / Pirate). We’d both experienced the model at training events and neither of us were enamoured by it. That said, it’s a potentially useful prompt for discussion but trainers generally expect every delegate to be a ‘participant’.

Gremlins in the wild have predictable forms, with both Prisoners and Pirates being commonplace; leaders who are Monty Python fans will also recognise members of the Peoples’ Front of Judea (PFJ) in their teams!

Johnny Depp live on the set as Captain Jack Sparrow

Captain Jack Sparrow by Stuck in Customs, on Flickr

I caught myself being a Gremlin during the first few days of our most recent expedition – part Pirate, part PFJ. The key roles within the team were restricted, but the people responsible for those roles was neither explicit nor clear. To be fair, our team were developing the approach to a complex task as well as learning to work together. As a ‘Pirate’ I was being critical and hostile; in ‘PFJ’ meetings the discussions were unproductive. Once I caught myself I had to genuinely consider whether I was on the right ship. Once satisfied I carved out a role for myself, settled quickly and made a useful contribution.

My point? Well, my previous post focussed on the leader’s responsibility for defining and monitoring roles within a team; that’s a hierarchical norm however, and the world is moving on. @P0bsta made me think about the responsibilities of individuals and why every team member needs to be mindful of roles. Group Think stems from ill-considered ‘participation’, and it isn’t always the right approach. It’s perfectly acceptable to be a ‘Passenger’ from time to time, but being a ‘Prisoner’ or ‘Pirate’ isn’t necessarily wrong. What matters most is recognising your current position and working out what that means for you and your team.

Gremlins in your team?

Gizmo by Looking Glass, on Flickr

Gizmo by Looking Glass, on Flickr

I completed a physically demanding challenge recently, with fifteen unfamiliar people living for 10 days in each-other’s pockets, working together towards a shared goal. The challenge involved 8-10 hours of physical exertion every day, with each of us burning up to 6,000 kcals above normal daily requirements. Rest periods were short and overnight accommodation was shared – perfect pressure cooker conditions for ‘team development’.

The first few days passed in a blur and it wasn’t until around day 6 that I felt comfortable with the physical elements and degree of fatigue. I’ve reflected since, playing back individual contributions and considering how we learned to work together as time on task progressed.

I’ve studied the development of teams, but one of the problems with abstract theories is that they don’t always help when you’re ‘in the moment’. A thought I find helpful is to consider team members like Gremlins!

Remember how a tiny, adorable Mogwai comes with just a simple set of instructions? Remember how quickly things go downhill once the instructions aren’t followed? Well, team members often start projects behaving like ‘Gizmo’ the Mogwai; they’re helpful, interested and motivated – eager to move a project forward and generally fun to be around. Those self-same, friendly, placid Mogwais don’t always get the information they need however; and more specifically, individual roles within the team aren’t always clear.

People will say that roles are obvious – that individuals are appointed with defined tasks and specific responsibilities? Well, that might be how things are supposed to work, but teams don’t develop like that; there’s jostling to be done and ‘hidden’ or implied functions which people only assume once projects have started. Highly motivated team members with uncertain roles are like Mogwai left untended. As a leader, if you’re not mindful of specific roles (and how they’re establishing in your team), it won’t be long before Gremlins are running amok.

Appearances are deceptive and being a Gremlin isn’t a great place to be. Sensitive support, guidance and direction – quality leadership in fact – will bring friendly Mogwais back where they’d prefer to be.


One of my tasks this year has been to put together a TED/Do Lectures style afternoon of inspirational presentations for an audience of 600. My remit was broad; approach key figures from the business, sporting, entertainment, military and adventurous fields, asking them to reflect on their development as leaders. I was to ‘think big’ and try to attract household names.

Accessibility really struck me. Most key figures are shielded by organisational layers and ‘gatekeepers’ – they simply aren’t accessible unless you have a shortcut or an ‘in’. How many times have you heard people tell you they’re accessible? That their door is “always open”? Yeah, okay, maybe 1 or 2 above in your own organisation – perhaps even 3. My own bosses have always been really approachable, receptive and patient. In a hierarchy however, we never really have cause to access the tops.

In more than six months of planning and preparation I made a lot of approaches. Almost exclusively I was dealt with by gatekeepers, never actually speaking to the people I tried to reach. A significant, notable exception was the Virgin Group. I never spoke with Richard Branson (he seems the kinda guy who approaches you when he needs to). I did however, speak with the President of one of his companies. My call  – number withheld – was answered on the second ring. Not only was it answered, I was given a few minutes of valuable time to deliver my pitch. The timing of our event wasn’t great for the President, but he really wanted to engage, and he suggested I speak with his right-hand man, the Commercial Director.

Once again my call was answered, second ring. Once again I was gifted a couple of valuable minutes of time. After considering my pitch I was asked to wait 48 hours for a response – I got a ‘yes’ the next day and I got a fantastic speaker for our event.

Following the event I was able to spend a bit of social time chatting with our guests, discussing organisational differences. When I mentioned accessibility I got a real sense of culture and expectation – that being accesible and engaging were expected in the Virgin Group. The Commercial Director was actually appointed himself following an unexpected headhunting call from Richard Branson.

Virgin, as an organisation really struck me as being open to opportunity. Their approach has really made me think about my own practice; I don’t enjoy being interrupted by calls at work, and I don’t generally answer calls to my mobile from unrecognised numbers (I let them go to answerphone). Folk at Virgin would say “but what if that call’s important?”

Discussing approaches to leadership with an experienced group this week I mentioned my contact with Virgin. One of our group commented “well, that’s all well and good, but I’ve tried open door policies before and 2 minutes of my time to 50 people – whenever they want – soon becomes a burden …”

He missed my point. In six months I’ve spoken to only one organisation unique in its approach. I spoke to two of the most important people in that organisation; leaders of a truly massive project. Each was accessible, each picked up and gave time; they listened and considered – it seemed normal to them, not a burden. In fact, I really enjoyed our contact. It’s not something I’ll abuse – indeed, I actually have no real need to call them again.

My question for you is this: when was the last time you were truly accessible? Do you pick up? Why not? What might you miss – and what if someone like Richard Branson calls you one day? Finally, just because you might make yourself accessible, that doesn’t necessarily mean people will take advantage – it just means people can reach you when they need to – isn’t that kinda right?

About time

Chris Atherton wrote a great post in August, expressing her frustration at a lack of spare time. All I could do was nod in sympathy and slog on. I’ve been in a ‘capacity vacuum’ for much of this year and Chris’s comments summed up my own experiences to a large degree. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not been a bad year, just a spectacularly productive and particularly intense one. I’ve much to reflect on and write about in the coming months, and I’m feeling energised and productive – like a surfer propelled from the barrel of a wave. Good to be back.

What will a ‘beginner’ teach you today?

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the experts mind there are few. That is the real secret of the arts, always be a beginner”
Shunryu Suzuki – Zen mind, Beginner’s mind

I was reminded of this quote during the recent holidays whilst playing chess with my children. Our eldest (aged 13) has played for a few years now and we enjoy an occasional game; this year however, our 10 and 8yr olds also decided they wanted to play. It struck me how hard it is to play against a complete beginner. My younger children didn’t understand how to ‘properly’ develop a game and they made moves which didn’t ‘make sense’. Some of these random moves resulted in confident, glaring errors from me! The first game between my 8yr old daughter and I took nearly 40 minutes to ‘win’ – I lost important pieces and we very nearly ended up drawing the game! I’m no Gary Kasparov – indeed, I’m not really much more than a beginner myself – but my adult, ‘expert’ mindset was limiting and the experience drove a good message home.

As ‘experts’ we can often be blinkered to possibility. When was the last time you delivered (or were truly receptive to) the perspective of the beginner? Are you open to possibility? To learning as a shared experience? If not, then perhaps these are thoughts to ponder?

What will a ‘beginner’ teach you today?

PS: We played “Connect 4” as well. In a ‘best of 5’ tournament I lost to each of my children – I got properly, soundly whooped! How wonderful to learn such valuable lessons from them – I hope they teach me many more things in the years to come.